I have been given permission to discuss in greater detail the work of a lovely German woman, Imke Spilker, as gifted to us in her book SELBSTBEWUSSTE PFERDE. It is with immense, heartfelt enthusiasm I share here that Empowered Horses / Learning Their Way, Through Independence, Self-Confidence and Creative Play has gone to press and is expected to be available for delivery in April! At long last, Kristina McCormack's English translation of this relationship-altering book is available, thanks to the foresight of the editors at Trafalgar Square in securing the rights to publish it.
I have ordered several advanced copies (including one for you Nancy, and one for you Jean, as promised!)
Here are just a handful of places which already have the book available for pre-ordering:
If you go to the Amazon sites, they offer an excellent glimpse inside the book. In this first Journal of Ravenseyrie entry for February, I hope to give you a heightened feel for this book as well, as I quote from some of the passages I've highlighted in the working draft of the translation which Kris provided me quite some time ago.
Before I begin our virtual thumbing through Empowered Horses, I want to relay why I find this book to be so pivotal in my life, and why I am so keen to have others read and experience it for themselves.
Imke Spilker had an epiphany one day, when--like any other day--she went out to the pasture with the intent to ride her horse. Questions that many of us have begun to ask of ourselves plagued her that fateful day and instead of pushing such questions aside, she felt compelled to sit down and confront them head on. These are the questions she asked herself:
What gives you the right to do what you always do -- punish what you call disobedient -- try to control them -- lay claim to their bodies? What are you doing here? Why do you do that?
We humans have a long history with horses, throughout which we have been culturally shaped into believing that we must always assume leadership and be the dominant partner in our relationship with horses. Such perspectives at best profess to love and care for a horse like a parent tends to a child, and at worst, the assumed role of dominant being leads humans to perpetuate all manner of immoral assaults upon the horse and its liberty as equally as abhorrent as the history of slavery among humans.
Is there a different concept of the horse/human relationship possible--one that does not demean the horse by constantly treating it as an immature child or look upon it as chattel we own and can "use" as we see fit? And if the answer is "yes" how do we go about discovering this new way of being with horses?
My own epiphany was not something I can attribute to a single "pasture moment" like Imke Spilker's, rather mine has been a gradual reflecting upon these questions over years and allowing the answers to emerge through a myriad of mishaps, bumblings and overriding intuition that directed me towards influences that broke free from the pattern of old modes cultural shaping. All fine and good, this gradual epiphany, but I must say it rather left me feeling completely uncertain about how to proceed with carrying on with any form of "horse training" within this new mindset I'd flowered into. Empowered Horses not only provides all that is necessary to go exploring the deep, murky waters where the above questions live so that we can find inspiring, liberating answers, this book also reveals to us how to graft elements of classical horse training onto a relationship built upon "play".
In many ways, what Imke Spilker shares with us in this book is much like what I learned during my study of Nevzorov Haute Ecole (in fact her work along these lines predates his). While both approach the horse from a completely novel mindset and excel at assisting horses in developing authentic natural collection, Imke Spilker does so without finding it necessary to condemn others who may not yet be ready to change their way of thinking about horse/human relationships. Also, Imke Spilker's training is more horse-directed (as in Learning "Their" Way) than is that of Nevzorov Haute Ecole, the latter which imposes restrictions and specific rules which must be adhered to by both human and horse. With the wide-open landscape and semi-wild herd setting here at Ravenseyrie, Imke Spilker's approach to training is much more fitting and achievable for me and (in my opinion) more physically and mentally satisfying for the horses.
So, let's take a look at some of what Imke Spilker has written in Empowered Horses...
Considerations on the horse/human relationship
Horses are defenseless against the encroachment of human beings. To give them a sense of well being in our company, it is important that the relationship is structured so that horses do not feel oppressed by our might, but rather feel empowered by our presence.
If you want to learn to understand the nature of horses, you must approach them in a different way. If you want to have friendly conversations with them, you must meet them on an equal level. Only in that way will you be able to become part of their world, instead of coming as a conqueror, as one who wants to destroy.
A person who seeks to master horses will always resort to instruments of force. But one who understands that he is a guest in the horse' world realizes he has neither the right nor a reason to punish a horse, or to fight him. He does not issue commands, but rather makes an effort to learn something new with and from this animal, and to make his own presence as pleasant as possible to the horse. This basic politeness will change his behavior so radically that he will soon be accepted by the horses without reservation.
Togetherness is the foundation from which everything else proceeds. Togetherness - not hierarchy - puts us on the same level. Togetherness is the prerequisite for influencing each other from within the depths of our beings.
A horse's desires should count just as much as ours do, at least if we are talking about partnership and friendship. I do not enjoy feeling like a slave overseer among my horses. And we cannot be speaking of genuine unity if I must coerce them into it. Let us turn the question around: Would you have fun at something to which you were forcefully dragged? Why even consider applying this pressure to my horse or myself? These days no one and nothing demands that we must ride. Instead of forcing my horse, I will sit in the grass and play with my dog, or think of something else to do.
Freedom - this feeling comes from within and so can hardly be identified by external trappings. A halter or a bridle can mean to my horse, "Oh no! I'm going to be annoyed again' or "Great! Now we'll finally get going! I've waited all day for you!" We must know how our horse is feeling and how he perceives a situation or thing before we can characterize him as "free". How does the horse feel as he is doing whatever-it-is? Can he find a way out? Does he have a choice, a genuine alternative?
Considerations on developing a new dialogue
Free space is what creates the possibility of a true dialog. The horse can leave or he can come, he can say "yes" or "no". We want the horse to sense his freedom, to feel it to realize it...the horse may, should and must be able to decide for himself freely, because it is only from a freely made decision that our very special kind of relationship can grow. We want to share pride, joy and time together with the horse, not force ourselves upon him.
There are many different ways to get a horse to comply with our wishes. What distinguishes them is the attitude and feelings of the participants. How is my horse doing with this? Why am I doing what I am doing? Does this action have anything to do with my horse, any meaning in the good sense of the word? Meaningless actions on the part of the person are a sure way to quickly lose a horse's motivation. Who among us enjoys being ordered around?
Recognizing the value of play
It is here, in the balance of the relationship between man and horse, that we find the beginnings of play. The equality of the partners is the basic requirement for fairness - the same opportunities and rights for all players. Our playing can be truly carefree only when things are fair.
If a person truly wants to play with a horse and relate to him as a partner, he must adhere to rules the two of them have both agreed upon. Otherwise the horse remains a plaything, a toy which the person merely uses to play out his own game.
Playing lets us grow closer because it overcomes differences - even when they are as great as between man and horse...Play removes the distance between us and lets us become one. We get a glimpse into the other's world of thoughts - even if the other is an animal - because play conquers even the boundaries between species.
Considerations on playful work
Working together, working 'with', a horse is something different. I do not have an ideal form in mind into which I will try to mold my horse. After all, this is a living being standing here with me, not lifeless "material" that can and my be worked on as I please. The art of horsemanship as I understand it can only be an art dedicated to horses and must serve them, instead of human ambition, performance, or the entertainment of the masses. What we want is for a good enough connection to exist between person and horse so that understanding and harmony rule. We want a hierarchy-free, joyful atmosphere - the same atmosphere that exists when we play together. Only under these conditions can I offer a horse something new: aids that are truly helpful, and working with him, not on him. "Is there something you would like to improve? Are you perhaps not feeling well there?" From play we draw forth the energy and the self-confidence to confront such sore points. A horse needs courage for this, even perhaps, enthusiasm.There is much that I have to leave for you to read from the book itself, these are just a few of the many incredible insights contained in this book. Also, I have run out of time and am not able to highlight some of the exercises Imke Spilker has learned from the horses which facilitate greater freedom, proud and lofty balance and the joy of expression, and anyhow, these things are better viewed in the book with the benefit of the excellent and detailed photos she shares of how her horses came to develop these exercises and the changes they have brought to the horses way of movement and pleasure in "working".
First we learn from this book how to change ourselves, and from that we learn from the horses how best to proceed into new ways of interaction, better ways of developing communication which lead to explorations of better carriage and movement...all throughout which we are guided and measured by the horses' responses, as Imke notes, "The nicest thing about this work is that we finally have a pure, incorruptible standard for evaluating the quality of our actions: our horse's approval. His enthusiasm grows, he becomes more and more madly eager to move, to collect, he takes over the arena...all showing me that my work cannot be so very wrong."
This is the gift of learning "their" way, this is the splendor of Empowered Horses!